Empathy and moral emotions in post-apartheid South Africa

Moral emotions elicited in response to others’ suffering are mediated by empathy and affect how we respond to their pain. South Africa provides a unique opportunity to study group processes given its racially divided past. The present study seeks insights into aspects of the moral brain by investigating behavioral and functional MRI responses of White and Black South Africans who lived through apartheid to in- and out-group physical and social pain. Whereas the physical pain task featured faces expressing dynamic suffering, the social pain task featured victims of apartheid violence from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to elicit heartfelt emotion. Black participants’ behavioral responses were suggestive of in-group favoritism, whereas White participants’ responses were apparently egalitarian. However, all participants showed significant in-group biases in activation in the amygdala (physical pain), as well as areas involved in mental state representation, including the precuneus, temporoparietal junction (TPJ) and frontal pole (physical and social pain). Additionally, Black participants reacted with heightened moral indignation to own-race suffering, whereas White participants reacted with heightened shame to Black suffering, which was associated with blunted neural empathic responding. These findings provide ecologically valid insights into some behavioral and brain processes involved in complex moral situations.

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About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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